The invisible women of the women’s strike:

115721508_6c3e597035_z
Photo by Allen Lew of Flickr.com

The women’s strike was seen by many feminists to be the continuation of momentum from the very successful Women’s March.  It was expected to be less successful because a lot of women can’t strike (I could be fired as a government employee).  However, it did close a number of school districts (which was a BFD). I would also argue this protest served its purpose if the sole purpose was to raise awareness for things like family leave, reproductive rights, and equal pay.  However, assuming that this, alone, was the main takeaway is not helpful.  The women who did not strike have more to say than the women who did, in my opinion.  Let me say that I totally supported and cheered for my friends who were able to strike.  I think it was wonderful and I don’t think their intention in any way was to discount the voices of women of color.  However, I think if we are to use this strike as a moment of visibility, we need to be careful to talk about those invisible women, too.

I have talked before about privilege and feminism – specifically in the context of the romanticization of mothering in a developing nation which is often seen in discourse about how we raise and feed babies.  There are issues with intersectionality in third wave feminism.  The “selfie girls” who were criticised in the aftermath of the Women’s March illustrate an important dialogue about white feminism and the reality of being a minority or working class feminist.  I think it is important to continue to address these issues.

We are doing ourselves, as feminists, no favors by focusing just on the white, privileged women. It’s reductionist.  It is harmful.  This criticism became very vocal with the introduction of “you go girl” feminism in Lean In.  Sandberg makes some good points, of course.  She argues that women need to feel free to take charge, should speak more in meetings, and demand a place at the table.  Moreover, she suggest women need to choose partners who are supportive of them and will share equally. I value all of these things as a working mom and I would give the same advice to a young grad student or trainee.

However, as a working mom who is highly educated and white, there are so many opportunities I am already afforded.  My biggest problems truly are equal pay for a job that already pays my bills and parental leave at a job where I was able to use paid leave already for an FMLA protected leave where I did not have to go on LWOP.  Sandberg argues in Lean In that for our sisters in the trenches working other types of jobs, this should lead to an overall better standard of living.  That makes me uncomfortable because the issue of equality probably is hardest to swallow for these women.  It neglects the needs they have RIGHT NOW.  Asking them to wait while we serve our own needs seems selfish and misdirected.

This approach also puts the ability to succeed on the backs of women.  It’s your  fault if you don’t demand more-even though workplace harassment and institutional barriers are so entrenched in patriarchy that they are incredibly difficult to overcome.

Many feminist theorists have criticized this type of feminism, including the amazing Bell Hooks, in an essay about her “trickle down” feminism.  Hooks writes,

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

“You go girl” feminism is nearly impossible to achieve due to something political scientists like myself know all too well.  It is one big effing collective action problem.  You can do your best but only through the cooperation of women and, yes, men, can you change corporate culture.  Sandberg clearly hasn’t done that for even her class of uber-privileged ladies.  Uber (please grant me this pun) has a huge harassment scandal brewing and the EEOC is currently seeing an increase in such complaints:

EEOC
Source: EEOC (2016)

Clearly, it is not all fixed.  That’s why women marched and struck this week.  Still, focusing just on this is harmful.  I’ve already read a number of articles about the politics of gender equality and the strike.  One I would encourage anyone to read was an Op-Ed written by Meghan Daum in the LA TimesIn it, Daum states,

Make no mistake, March 8 will mostly be a day without women who can afford to skip work, shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else, and shop at stores that are likely to open at 10 and close at 5… Meanwhile, for the millions of women who have no choice but to show up and meet their responsibilities on March 8 (and every day), it will be business as usual.

I didn’t strike.  I couldn’t strike.  And the strike did not affect me as a woman because my female coworkers couldn’t strike and I was able to avoid buying anything (a man bought me a beer and a pretzel).  I posted about this on social media.  I felt it important to note why I wasn’t striking.  I was working a job to help people who needed me – vulnerable people – for a government that required me to work.  Many women are in the federal and state government workplace not represented by unions.  It’s hard for us in that capacity.  My only ability to take the day off work would be, ironically, through the PTO I do not have left because I just had a baby!  I made it clear that insufficient family leave was the reason I couldn’t strike.

I saw mostly white women striking – women with good jobs, women who are salaried, women working in industries that supported their choices.  I value what they did because it does raise awareness and keep the ball rolling.  But just talking about the strike and the powerful message it sent misses the point.

The women who can afford to strike are the “you go girl” feminists already supported by people like Sandberg.  They are very, very visible.  “Selfie girl” basically explains this all in one picture.  I was able to go out last night and see my dissertation advisor, have a beer with him, and talk about my love of Canadian politics post-dissertation because my husband made a point of taking our kid for the night.  He was able to work around a change in morning routine without my help because we share responsibilities.  If I had had the PTO and wanted to strike, he would have supported me, work would have supported me, and I would have still sent my baby to daycare.  That, I argue, would have totally defeated the purpose of the strike for me and my family.

My sitter is a great lady.  She is semi-retired and we love and value her.  She’s a small business owner.  However, she doesn’t have my education or my privilege.  Every freaking day, she juggles three babies of various ages – one who is scooting, one who is a toddler and walking, and my 3 month old – and does an amazing job at it.  She does things I could not.  She’s also a working class woman who works every day probably too hard for too little.  I feel ashamed at saying that because what she does is so hard to value for us as parents because it’s an invaluable act to help our child grow and we are lucky to afford her.  She, like many women who perform domestic duties, could not strike.  If she had struck, she would have inconvenienced those of us who pay her a lot of money to watch our kids and threatened her own business.  We would have adjusted to accommodate her but her other clients may not have.

My grandmothers were both working class, albeit white.  Would the strike have helped them?  Likely not.  One of my grandmothers ran her own cleaning business.  She had 5 living children to support on a meager income.  Pleasing her clients was what kept food on the table.  Even so, her income was often a precarious thing and very dependent on the economic situation of her clients.  It was variable.  Her work was daunting and hard.  She could not have been on strike.  My other grandmother worked every day at a grueling factory job.  She could not have been on strike.  She was not unionized – even back then.  This was the lot of so many of our mothers and grandmothers – white or otherwise (although it was so much harder for women of color) – but I think we forget about it as the plight many women still face today.  The idea of “blue collar” has changed but “working class” women still exist.

Women of color also exist.  We neglect to speak about their issues.  Again, I cannot speak for them but I feel the need to advocate for them.  These women are paid less even then us white ladies.  Black women make 60 cents vs. a man’s dollar while Latino women make only 55 cents on a man’s dollar. This is opposed to our overall pay gap of 1 dollar for men compared to 77 cents for women.  This means Latino women make almost 40% less than white women and even Black women make almost 30% less than white women.  These women are more likely to work these sorts of precarious jobs where a strike would be disastrous for them and their households.  If your main goal is to put food on the table for your kids, you can’t even afford to take a day off of work when you are already making minimum wage.  So, even if your boss won’t fire you, you don’t have much of a “choice”.

“Working class” or “minority” feminist issues ARE feminist issues.  Full stop.  They should be treated as such.  We shouldn’t stop talking about the strike as  “women were striking” but we should continue on. We should also focus on who could not strike.  That speaks so much louder to the dire situation many women find themselves in.

Why couldn’t we all strike yesterday?  We needed to save our PTO and needed to pay our daycare providers so striking wouldn’t matter anyway.  Our daycare providers and cleaning ladies, which we are privileged enough to have, can’t afford to piss off clients or miss a day’s pay due to a scheduling conflict.  Women couldn’t strike for fear of losing their jobs, folks.  They couldn’t strike because that one day’s pay was the difference between eating and not.

Feminism cannot be everything to everyone all the time, true, but it also cannot keep beating down the women who suffer most.  When working class and minority feminists start to demand inclusion and cry out for more, we need to stop high fiving ourselves and denying them a seat at the table.  Otherwise, we are no better than the misogynists calling us nasty women.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s